Cities are Healthiest, Greenest, Richest Place to Live

Cities and urbanization has been a constant theme of development — and consequently of this blog. Urban economist Ed Glaeser in his book, “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” argues that case. In a guest post on Freakonomics, Glaeser says that “to get America growing again, it’s time to unleash our cities.”

Glaeser argues that cities often get a bad rap even though they are “actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live. New Yorkers, for instance, live longer than other Americans; heart disease and cancer rates are lower in Gotham than in the nation as a whole. More than half of America’s income is earned in twenty-two metropolitan areas. And city dwellers use, on average, 40 percent less energy than suburbanites.”

Considering China in the context of economic development, he writes that,

. . . it’s instructive to consider what’s behind its incredible development and its increase in competitiveness. Simply put, China is urbanizing. China’s cities take in about 17 million new people every year because places like Shenzhen and Shanghai provide a path out of rural poverty. The good news for any anxious Americans out there is that cities and productivity go together everywhere in the world — and of course that goes for the U.S.A. as well.

Cities are at the heart of a competitive and global future, but even though the evidence is all around us, and even though mounds of data stare us squarely in the face (our country would be 43 percent richer if every area was as productive as New York), we don’t seem to get it. We continue to think that economic recovery and growth means building roads to nowhere, and we hobble our cities with silly policies that advance the idea that the only American dream is a white picket fence in the suburbs. If we want America to start growing again, we had better unleash our cities. And there are a few simple truths we need to acknowledge if we’re going to do that.

He points out that “cities succeed because they make smart people smarter.” Another matter he touches on — education — is also a continuing theme of this blog. I have argued that many of India’s problems stem from the government strangle-hold of education. Glaeser could have as well be talking about India in the following.

Chicago and New York have fantastic restaurants because new eateries are constantly opening, competing and closing. But imagine how awful eating in Manhattan would be if every meal was provided by a vast, bureaucratic public food system. Taste would be as rare as trans fats. And yet that’s what we settle for when it comes to our children’s educations in our urban centers — we’ve handed America’s future over to lumbering public monopolies. Unsurprisingly, this is why so many of the well-to-do either flee the city or send their kids to private schools, compounding the education crisis and widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots. We need a school system that harnesses the urban advantages of competition and innovation. We’ve already seen that charter schools can work wonders in cities, but do far less in suburbs.

You don’t have to be as smart as Glaeser to point out the advantages of building upwards, especially in a country like India which is land is in short supply. I have myself said so on this blog. (See the series on building designer cities.)

He goes on to lament that “America is, remarkably, still held captive by a Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers and country living.” India too is held captive by the Gandhian notion of simple village living. Villages were one of Gandhi’s many fetishes, and Gandhi is one of India’s primary fetishes — making villages a sort of “fetish-squared” for Indian policy-makers. Glaeser echoes what I have been saying for a while. He writes,

The rising powers of the developing world are seizing their urban futures — cramming smart people together, creating gateways for ideas, and building platforms for the serendipitous fortunes that proximity can provide. Gandhi may have thought that India’s future was in its villages and not its cities — but India today is proving the great man wrong.

Gandhi was of course wrong about villages. But then it will be a while before Indians figure out how many different areas he was absolutely wrong in. Gandhi, as the acknowledged “Father of the Nation”, is more than responsible for the disaster that India is today. Even the most unthinkable corruption that India has sunk into can be reasonably traced to his name — the name that the Congress Party uses to rape the country into next week.

But on to less depressing matters. David Brooks’ op-ed, “The Splendor of Cities“, also touches on Glaeser’s book. He writes,

Glaeser points out that far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important.

That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together. Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

Cities magnify people’s strengths, Glaeser argues, because ideas spread more easily in dense environments. If you want to compete in a global marketplace it really helps to be near a downtown. Companies that are near the geographic center of their industry are more productive. Year by year, workers in cities see their wages grow faster than workers outside of cities because their skills grow faster. Inventors disproportionately cite ideas from others who live physically close to them.

At some point in the future, after a lot more wrong turns, India will get a different set of policy-makers. These people would understand what India needs urgently to climb out of hellhole that the Congress party has dug for it. Part of long hard road to recovery would require the enabling of urbanization of the population. I hope that day is not too far off in the future: too many millions of lives are lived in utter destitution now.

{Thanks to all who sent me links to the above published sources. Special thanks to Akshar, Naman, and Rajesh. I appreciate them very much.}

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Cities are Healthiest, Greenest, Richest Place to Live”

  1. The French Revolution grew out of ideas of individualism expressed by Rousseau and Voltaire – that snowballed in the cafes and taverns and streets of Paris; not the feudal countryside which was still ignorant and superstitious.

    It remains in politicians’ interest to maintain the status quo of a mostly illiterate and backward electorate who will gladly swap votes for some money and I don’t see any change for the better in developing cities.


  2. So can I assume that Ed Glaeser and his family live in a city, since he sings numerous praises of a city and places it high above suburbs? In other words, is he walking his own talk, or does he want others to walk his talk?


  3. @kaffir : i m not sure i understand the point you are trying to make. how does it matter where he lives? there are many folks around the globe who live in smaller towns and villages but get it right. but for average lame joe, a city offers better options. glaeser being in city or not is irrelevant really, afaimc.


  4. @Kaffir
    “So can I assume that Ed Glaeser and his family live in a city, since he sings numerous praises of a city and places it high above suburbs? In other words, is he walking his own talk, or does he want others to walk his talk?”

    Kaffir you have a good point. Cities were important for European civilization, the Greco-Roman civilizations were city centered. Our culture emphasized nature and the country side and the forest life, and saw cities as something necessary and artificial. But we have become so lost that we do not understand the ideals which our civilization stood for and lap up every idea from the West, and our ugly cities are a far cry from the beauty of the cities our ancestors who were good builders built. Take a look at Vijayanagar which was the last Hindu stronghold, that is, the last civilization to display classical Indian civilization right up to the sixteenth century. It was destroyed by the Sulatans who were wont to quarrel amongst themselves but did not hesitate to band together when it came to destroying an “infidel” city and render it completely uninhabitable. It is because classical civilization was destroyed in the South at a much later date with the destruction of Vijayanagar that people in the south still build temples wherever they immigrate unlike North Indians who have the barbaric legacy of Islam which destroyed most Hindu architecture, North India is mostly a barbaric place for this reason as classical civilization was destroyed much earlier than in the South, and they have no conception of architecture anymore…

    Vijayanagar was described by the Portugese as large as Rome and very beautiful and one of the best provided for cities of the time…Look at our ugly cities today! We have even lost the capacity to conceive cities of such grandeur and look to the West for all ideas even in urban planning…This is what a thousand years of slavery and complete deracination does, it renders a peoples incapable of thinking for themselves….,or.&wrapid=tljp1298386025828014&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&sa=X&ei=bcxjTaLdL8-tgQe4wPn5AQ&sqi=2&ved=0CEIQsAQ&biw=1345&bih=596


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